Is There Really Such a Thing as Sustainable Tourism?

Is There Really Such a Thing as Sustainable Tourism?

By Indiana Lee

The ideals of sustainable travel and ecotourism have grown in popularity as the world’s oceans continue to rise and the environmental impact of the world’s population continues to be felt. Around the globe, people are becoming more conscious of the ongoing environmental crisis and are looking for solutions to relieve it.

Opponents to environmental harm caused by tourism have made a particular push to spread awareness about the issue. Now, the tourism industry is investing an increasing amount of money into sustainable tourism, especially when paired with smart technology. 

Eco-friendly resources are more likely to be found in places like Costa Rica, Patagonia, or Chile than on a cruise ship to the Bahamas, but smart technology has been used to provide potential ways to minimize the impact of tourism in popular tourist destinations.

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Sustainable tourism. Tamnougalt, Morocco (Sahara). Photo by Sergey Pesterev.
Tamnougalt, Morocco (Sahara). Photo by Sergey Pesterev.

The New York Times reports that even cruise ships are now focusing on ocean conservation by reducing carbon emissions and providing seafood from sustainable fisheries and farms. However, many environmentalists question the true impact of such advancements.

Though many who go on vacation prefer to put aside responsibility of any sort during their time away from home, many others are interested in maintaining sustainability while on vacation. Some even choose specific destinations where they can incorporate social justice and environmental service during their holiday.

Many critics of this type of travel say that eco-tourism and social tourism does more harm than good, but if you are looking for ways to incorporate environmental positivity into your next trip, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Do your research

First of all, when you are choosing a place to go, you should consider traveling to places that employ best practices for the environment, like a top state for solar energy in the U.S., or a region renowned for its commitment to conservation. By going to a destination that encourages eco-friendly habits, you are helping to energize their economy and passively supporting the cause. Plus, you can pick up some of those habits and incorporate them back at home.

Of course, there is much you can do once you start your vacation. While some prefer to leave their vacations unstructured and spontaneous, doing a bit of research can help you find the most sustainable, fair-trade restaurants and establishments. Even laying the basics of your trip, such as finding green lodging and transportation, can help you reduce your carbon footprint. 

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Sustainable tourism-Ricefields tegallang, Indonesia. Photo by Jamie Fenn
Ricefields tegallang, Indonesia. Photo by Jamie Fenn.

If you do like to extensively map out your vacations, direct your searches to find any places that keep “green” practices. You should try monitoring your trash consumption, opting out of tourist traps, and investigating your transportation options as some of the top ways to be an eco-friendly tourist.

For those who absolutely cannot stand planning out a vacation, there are still ways for you to keep a look-out for the most environmentally friendly locations. You can do this either on your way to your destination or when you arrive. 

For example, you can take some time on the plane to find potential places to check out. Though not all planes offer free Wi-Fi, many phone companies have plans for in-flight service. This can help you gain excitement for the trip on your way to the destination, and planning can help you limit your in-flight boredom.

When you arrive, you can look for local places to eat or buy handmade souvenirs from locals rather than major companies. Avoid retail chains and globally renowned fast food restaurants if you’re going out of the country. This will not only help you to support the local economy, but it enables you to indulge in their culture.

Social Justice, Sustainability, and Tourism

Sustainability and tourism are similarly becoming more and more interconnected. Research shows that millennials are especially inclined to give back to the communities they travel to. According to Travel Technology & Solutions (TTS), a leader in the development of innovative solutions for the tourism industry, millennials provide invaluable resources to the sustainable tourism industry, making it one of the “single hottest trends” for the millennial vacationer.

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Sustainable tourism. Inle Lake, Myanmar. Photo by Spencer Kelly on Unsplash
Inle Lake, Myanmar. Photo by Spencer Kelly.

While TTS reports that sustainable tourism is a $2 billion industry, there are ethical dilemmas that must be considered before venturing into it. For example, many choose to go into voluntourism or ecotourism without considering the true needs of the local community and can ultimately harm the community they try to help.

In another article by the New York Times, this issue is highlighted with the example of voluntourists flying to Haiti to participate in the construction of small buildings. Jacob Kushner, the author of the article, posits that though intentions might be good, these voluntourists may not be helping as much as they think. Of his experience visiting Haiti as a journalist, he writes: “These people knew nothing about how to construct a building. Collectively they had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly. Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves. Perhaps those Haitian masons could have found weeks of employment with a decent wage. Instead, at least for several days, they were out of a job.”

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Tourists may not be the right people for construction if they have no previous knowledge, and their physical contribution may be small compared to the thousands of dollars they spend on flights and hotels. This can also take the jobs and money away from locals who would otherwise benefit from them. Furthermore, while the solution of building a school takes a set number of days, it ultimately does nothing to improve the real issue, the education system, poverty and the negative implications of capitalism.

The best way to participate in sustainable tourism is to consider the needs of the locals before the needs of your own. Clean up after yourself, support the local economy, and actively ensure that you are producing as little waste and carbon emissions as possible (and if you do, make sure to offset). If you choose to participate in any volunteer projects or charity work, make sure that it will provide the most aid to those you are trying to help.

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Feature image of Rio de Janeiro by Agustín Diaz / Unsplash.

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